Evaluation of Pelletized Poultry Litter to Improve Specialty Crop Production in West Virginia

Progress report for ONE21-388

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $29,944.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2024
Grant Recipient: West Virginia University
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Candace DeLong
West Virginia University
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

 

This project evaluates the feasibility of producing a value-added fertilizer from WV-sourced poultry litter. To determine feasibility, we will conduct fertilizer response trials and evaluate pathogen reduction from the pelleting process. Response trials will be completed on the farms of our four partnership growers located around the state. We will also distribute bags of fertilizer to local farm and garden outlets to determine the product's marketability. Outreach will be focused on specialty crop growers and the poultry industry in the state. 

We are pursuing this data for two possible benefits: one to determine if a pelletized product could be an additional profit-producing outlet for our poultry producers, and two to determine if the product can be of use to high tunnel growers and gardeners – this could potentially distribute the high-phosphorus litter away from the high-phosphorus soils of West Virginia’s poultry-producing regions

Introduction:

Poultry litter is an excellent nutrient source for crop production. Especially for regions with phosphorus-deficient soils. A common analysis of poultry litter would yield nutrient levels of approximately 50-75-40-6 per ton, representing nitrogen, phosphate, potash, and sulfur. These analyses can be extremely variable depending on feed source, bedding used, the length of time to raise the birds, and the type of bird raised.

Commercial poultry production in West Virginia is in two geographic regions, the Eastern Panhandle and the Greenbrier Valley. In the northeastern portion of the state broiler production is the dominant industry. In 2019 WV ranked 17th in broiler production, totaling 75 million birds produced. Most of this production is based in a five-county area, with Hardy County, producing approximately half of the total production. The topography of the region is described as ridge and valley. This farmland topography typically leads to a large amount of cropland that has soil-test phosphorus levels in the excessive fertility range, contributing to excess phosphorus runoff. 

In our Northeast SARE Partnership Grant, we requested funding to pelletize West Virginia poultry litter and evaluate its nutritional composition before and after pelletizing. Once the litter is in a pelletized form its bulk density decreases, which allows for more efficient transportation. Poultry litter is an inconsistent product, due to the location of waterers and feeders, the nutrient levels may differ throughout the poultry house. A pelletizing process allows for a more uniform consistency of the product.

This project seeks to facilitate nutrient removal from areas of high phosphorus concentration (locations with high levels of poultry production) to lesser areas of concentration (areas without excess phosphorus from poultry production) while providing solutions for poultry growers who need to dispose of the litter, and specialty crop growers who need the litter for fertility. We plan to promote the pelleted material to high tunnel growers and home gardeners.

 

Cooperators

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  • Chico Ramirez and Mary Oldham - Producer
  • Hal Kreher - Technical Advisor
  • Mike Kwasnaski - Producer
  • Virginia Lamaster - Producer
  • Charles Moyer
  • Remington Perkins - Producer
  • Pam West - Producer
  • Jason Whitacre - Producer
  • Tyler Garrett - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

Pellet Evaluation

Poultry litter was collected from a broiler-producing farm in Hampshire County, West Virginia. This litter was evaluated for moisture content and then transported to Kreher Farms in New York to be pelletized. The litter was evaluated for changes in bulk density, percentage of crumbles or litter not remaining in pelleted form, pellet retention, durability, and stability during storage and transportation. Pelleted poultry litter from an operation in New York will be evaluated in a side-by-side comparison with West Virginia-generated pellets. The pelletized litter is now in storage, we plan to evaluate the litter this spring before use to determine its durability and stability.

In our initial project proposal, we discussed pelletizing two litter types, broiler litter from the Eastern Panhandle, and turkey litter from the Greenbrier Valley. We evaluated turkey litter from several farms in the Greenbrier Valley, but could not find a litter source with a low enough moisture content to go through the pelletizing process at Kreher Farms. Small bags of poultry litter were transported to Kreher Farms to test out the pelletizing process before we transported the full amount, and these trial trips revealed the turkey litter would not be suitable for the pelletizing process. For this reason, we only pelletized one type of litter and we are starting our project with only 3 tons of pelletized litter.

After the litter was pelletized and transported back to West Virginia, our team members scooped and weighed the litter into 40-pound bags that were distributed to our four partner farms: Mountain Harvest Farm in Morgantown, PowderKeg Farm in High View, West Farm in Lewisburg, and Charm Farm in Beverly. Laboratory analysis was completed to determine the nutrient composition of the pelletized litter. Each bag has a product label and a QR code for collecting feedback. Litter Bag Info Sheet

 

Evaluation of Marketing Product

Half of our generated pelleted litter fertilizer is reserved for a marketing evaluation that will take place in 2023. Project pellets are currently packaged in 40-pound bags, but these pellets may be distributed into smaller 10-pound bags to increase appeal to smaller-scale gardeners. Bags will be distributed to two lawn and garden/agricultural retail centers. One location is in a rural county and the other is in an urban store. The bags of pellets will be offered for sale during the spring planting season with a QR code label attached to each bag. Currently, the 40-pound bags of litter have a custom-made label with the product information along with a QR code for collecting feedback on the product via an online survey tool.

 

Poultry Litter Pellet Fertility Response Trials

An initial cabbage fertility response trial was planted at Mountain Harvest Farm in Morgantown, WV. Three response rates (75, 150 and 225 lbs N) and a control are awaiting evaluation. Harvested cabbage plants will be evaluated for total and marketable yield and the wrapper leaves will be used to determine sap nitrate concentration. 

After analysis of this initial trial, the response trial will be repeated on the farms of our four partner farms across the state. We have changed our target crop to cabbage because of the faster maturity times and ease of harvesting and data collection. WVU Extension has shared a great deal of information on season extension and winter growing and we see the switch to cabbage as our target crop as another way to share these techniques with the producers in the state.

 

Evaluation of Pathogen destruction during Pellet Production

To determine the microbial composition of WV poultry litter and the resulting litter after it has been pelleted viable counts of bacteria will be cultured on selective media. Target organisms include Salmonella sp. and Escherichia coli. The 20 gram of poultry litter samples will be mixed 100 ml of buffered peptone water and stomached for 2 minutes. The filtered solution will be spread-plated onto XLT-4 and MacConkey agars for Salmonella and E.coli, respectively. Typical colonies from the plates will be further identified using latex agglutination test and multiple-channel biochemistry test such as Enterotube II and API 20e. We are currently awaiting these results.

 

Statewide Survey of WV Gardeners and Farmers

A survey will be completed to determine the level of interest in adding pelletized poultry litter to gardens, pasture, or hay fertility programs. Using our WVU soil testing lab database, we will survey 11,000 customers using Qualtrics software to determine their interest in using a West Virginia-based organic fertilizer and how much these growers are willing to pay for this value-added product. Qualtrics survey results will be analyzed and presented to poultry growers and poultry integrators in the two poultry growing areas in WV.

 

 

Research results and discussion:

In keeping with our initial SARE proposal timeline, we did not collect any final data in 2022, but we are well on our way to collecting valuable data in 2023. After the litter was analyzed for pelletizing, transported to New York, pelletized, and bagged up for distribution, an initial fertility trial using fall cabbages was established at Mountain Harvest Farm in August of 2022. The cabbages were harvested in late December of 2022 and are currently in storage awaiting evaluation of total and marketable yield and wrapper leaves sap nitrate concentration levels. When the cabbages were harvested there were visible size differences between the three different fertilizer rates. 

Using the data collected from the 2022 trial at Mountain Harvest Farm, we plan to adjust our fertilizer rates and repeat this cabbage trail at our four partner farms in the spring of 2023. We plan on growing the cabbage transplants ourselves at the Evansdale Greenhouse on WVU's Campus and distributing them to our partner growers.  

Research conclusions:

Our final results will be collected in the spring and fall of 2023, but this year we learned several valuable lessons that will contribute to the overall success of our project. 

First, this year we learned the moisture content of the poultry litter is of utmost importance for pelletizing litter. If poultry producers would like to invest in pelletizing litter to use as a fertilizer, the current litter storage practices must be analyzed to ensure the final product is of the right moisture content.

Second, although we have not analyzed the data, we believe we might have valuable insight into the fertilizer rate at which our pellets should be applied. The rates we chose for our initial cabbage fertility trial should give an overall look at how the nitrogen from the pelletized litter is utilized by the plant. 

 

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Other educational activities: We presented our research project as a poster at WVU Extension's Annual Conference in September of 2022.

Participation Summary:

4 Farmers participated
55 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

WVU Extension has a unique opportunity to deliver program content to a diversified list of clientele and residents of West Virginia. The results of this poultry pellet study will be delivered to both a state and national audience that encompass 4 main target demographics. Poultry growers, high tunnel growers, backyard gardeners, and extension professionals.

A presentation on the project’s findings will be delivered to The West Virginia Poultry Association during their annual convention which is held in the last week of July each year in Moorefield WV. The association consists of producers, industry associates, and others around the state with affiliation to the poultry industry. The association currently consists of 350 members.

There are currently over 1200 high tunnels in WV. These producers grow using many different production models. Many high tunnel producers, especially those that grow for farmers’ markets, choose to grow using organic management practices whenever possible. The opportunity to incorporate a local poultry litter pellet into their production model will be appealing for many of these producers. In order to showcase the project and its findings we will utilize our vegetable producers in the study and will hold a field day at each of the four partner farms. These producers are located in a manner that allows us to reach WV producers on a regional aspect in the north, south, central and Potomac Valley region of WV.  A presentation will also be delivered at the WV Small Farms Conference. This conference is attended by over 400 individuals representing producers, industry leaders, and extension professionals from West Virginia and surrounding states.

Lastly, a poster presentation will be submitted to the National Association of County Agricultural Agents for display at the National Meeting in July of 2024. 

 

January 2023 Update:

Our outreach plans still match what is listed above. We currently do not have final results to share, and most of our outreach is planned for the end of the project. However, in 2022 we presented a poster at the WVU Extension Annual Conference. This poster session was attended by extension professionals in all departments at WVU. 

Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

January 2023 Update:

In 2023, we plan to implement fertility trials on the farms of our four partner cooperators. As of right now, we have not collected enough data or progressed far enough in the project to have reported changes in knowledge, attitude, or skills. With the completion of our initial fertility trial, we do have enough data to accurately select fertility rates for the trials in the spring of 2023. 

Project Outcomes

6 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Project outcomes:

From our initial fertility trial in 2022, we have selected fertilizer rates to use on our four partner farms in the spring and fall of 2023. 

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

From our transport of litter in 2022, we have learned the moisture content of the litter is extremely important for pelletizing. Litter with too much moisture content cannot go through the pellet mill. This information is critically important for farmers who may want to pelletize litter in the future. 

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.